East to West

The History of
Ugandan Asians

History and heritage


The history of the Ugandan Asians is one that stretches back centuries and continues to develop to this day. From the initial encounters between the Indian subcontinent and coastal East Africa in the 1st Century AD to the establishment of a thriving community in the United Kingdom the history of the Ugandan Asians is both complex and unique. While the focus of this oral history project is to document, transcribe and reflect upon the experiences of Ugandan Asians in resettling in Britain after 1972 it is important to provide context and history to what brought them here. The tabs on this page will redirect you to different periods within history that shaped the livelihoods of the Ugandan Asian community.

The formal history of the Ugandan Asians begins in 1894 with the establishment of the Protectorate of Uganda by the British Empire. However, a rich and vibrant South Asian diaspora had existed in East Africa for centuries. Trade and contact existed between the Indian subcontinent and East African coastal settlements as early as the 1st Century AD. By the 11th Century AD with the spread of Islam and the growing importance of the Middle Eastern powers within the Indian Ocean connections between the Indian subcontinent and East Africa became increasingly common. The 13th and 14th centuries would see South Asian traders, Gujaratis, prominent in controlling access to South Asian textiles revered by the local population on the Swahili Coast.

The start of the 19th century would signal a growth in the importance of the African slave trade, and with it South Asian merchants adapted and became more prevalently involved in the exporting of slaves to western India. The expansion of the African slave trade would also see the decision by Said bin Sultan, ruler of the Omani Empire, to move his capital from Muscat in Oman to the island of Zanzibar. The Sultan also encouraged the South Asian traders from the north-western parts of the subcontinent such as Sindh, Gujarat, Punjab, and Maharashtra, who had long traditions of commerce, to settle in Zanzibar. The prevalence of Gujaratis and Punjabis would continue throughout the history of South Asians in East Africa, and consequently it’s important to highlight this cultural predilection for trade and commerce in helping to understand why East African Asians would remain influential and focused within this sector of the economy.

While British involvement in the Indian Ocean and the Indian subcontinent existed prior to direct rule in 1858, through the East India Company, it was with the establishment of the British Raj that the livelihoods of South Asian merchants were directly impacted. The 19th century had seen the growth of the abolitionist movement in Britain and following the Slave Trade Act of 1807 and the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, the British Empire made it its goal to enforce and end the slave trade within both the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean.

As the influence of the British Empire began to expand, its South Asian subjects became a useful tool in what the Empire saw as a necessary infrastructural development of their colonies in East Africa. Britain had already proposed these plans by 1875 when Lord Salisbury, Secretary of State for India, had recommended South Asian emigration to East Africa for settlement and colonisation. However, while South Asians had been well versed in trade and settlement in East African coastal cities, the idea of permanent settlement in the interior was alien with their goal always to return to their family on the Indian subcontinent upon retirement. Widespread South Asian settlement within the hinterland of East Africa was therefore not immediate, and rather it was through the use of indentured labour in the building of the Uganda Railway in 1895 that Britain attempted to kickstart the migration of South Asians to Uganda.

By the late 19th century, Britain had established itself as the dominant colonial force within the Indian Ocean world. Britain seeing that, unlike West Africa, Kenya and Uganda did not have extensive systems of trade that could serve exploitative goals made it a priority to develop this infrastructure. To achieve this, Britain ordered the construction of an extensive railway that would link the interiors of Kenya and Uganda with the coastal port city of Mombasa. Britain was faced with a lack of labour force as they regarded the indigenous people as unskilled and without a background in engineering. In addition, Britain’s abolition of slavery in the Empire in 1833 meant there was not access to slave labour that would have previously been used for such a project. Nevertheless, Britain had already began to create a new system of cheap and forced labour to replace slavery following its abolition, that of indentured labour. The British Raj as its most populous colony served as the perfect target for providing indentured labour. This method of indentured labour was not new to the British Empire who would oversee the inscription and movement of over 1.3 million South Asian indentured labourers throughout the Empire between 1833 and 1920.

The British Government authorised the building of the railway in 1895, and by the beginning of 1896 the first indentured labourers were imported. The construction of the railway took six years with the last track being laid at Kisumu at Lake Victoria in 1901. The building of the railway was incredibly tough and dangerous with 2,493 indentured labourers, 10% of those employed, dying in the process either through accidents or illnesses. Upon completion of the railway, disappointing British hopes, the majority of indentured labourers returned to the Indian subcontinent, with only 6,724, 21% of the original number, deciding to remain in East Africa. Of those who did remain in East Africa, the majority settled in towns along the route of the railway and became involved in trade and business due to colonial policy reserving the best farmland for Europeans. Nevertheless, while Britain had failed in its attempts to establish a colonising population through the use of South Asian indentured labourers, the few thousand that did remain would have an impact on the future of Ugandan Asians within the country. While the indentured labourers would become a minority of the South Asians settled in East Africa, they remained influential in perpetuating the myth of Ugandan Asians as descendants of “coolies” and thus “uncivilized” due to their lack of education and poor background.

The completion of the railway in 1901 and the ability of indentured labourers that remained to set up business in trade would trigger the first wave of major “voluntary” South Asian migration to Uganda in the 20th century. The land reforms of the British Raj had also brought large scale destruction and hindered the ability of peasants to make their livelihood in the Indian subcontinent. This in turn caused widespread famines which served as a key push factor for South Asians to emigrate to East Africa. Between 10,000-20,000 voluntary migrants would leave for East Africa between 1880 and the turn of the 20th century. While a majority would settle in Kenya, a significant percentage of adult men would venture further into the interior of Uganda in order to exploit the economic opportunities presented by the railway. The initial migrants were often individual adult men, as the passage to Uganda required one’s own financing and enough money to start a business upon arrival.

By 1910, colonial policy had established a hierarchy in Uganda with Europeans occupying positions of administration and agricultural development, Asians involved almost exclusively in trade or craftsmanship and Africans forced to work for either Europeans or South Asians as cheap labour, with very little possibility of social mobility. What would make Uganda unique would be the lack of further European migration in the 20th century meaning that the colonial system would become more deeply dependent upon the South Asian population in order to increase economic production. As more South Asians in the Indian subcontinent began to see the opportunities and protection provided by Britain in Uganda, further immigration followed. In a radical change from former South Asian traders within the Indian Ocean World these migrants began to settle permanently in Uganda, this time with their families, and establish a permanent community.

Dependent on the South Asian class in Uganda due to lack of willing European immigration, Britain decided in 1920 that South Asians would be allowed to obtain farmland in Uganda. While the best land remained in the hands of the European elite, this decision would lead to the establishment of a small South Asian planter class in Uganda that would become synonymous with rapid wealth. Consequently, it should be no surprise that Africans came to resent the establishment of the Ugandan Asian minority within the country who were a visible example of an “other” that could be seen to be preventing their social mobility by the fact they controlled around 80 to 90% of trade. Of course, the real culprit of preventing Africans from social mobility were the British, but the South Asians, especially in Uganda, presented a much more visible minority than the Europeans who were often isolated from everyday interactions with Africans and thus did not seem directly influential upon their livelihood.

By the 1930s the Ugandan Asian population was continuing to expand and had become a permanent fixture of Colonial Ugandan society. 1935 saw the cultivated land of South Asians reach almost the same as the Europeans as laws were relaxed on the possession of land due to the lack of European immigration. Ugandan Asians were making advancements in the political sphere as well, as they fought for representation in councils and legislative bodies in areas such as Kampala and Jinja. Yet as the success of the Ugandan Asian community grew so did the resentment from the native population. The end of the Second World War would trigger a renewed consciousness in the colonised around the world as their service to Britain and other empires led to a desire to be rewarded with representation and greater autonomy. The advancement of the independence movement in India also would serve as a key moment attracting not only the attention of the South Asian population but also the Africans themselves. The partition of British India in 1947 signalled that decolonization was a growing reality for other colonies and helped to advance the cause of Ugandan independence. This triggered a crisis, not just for the British but also the South Asians who had benefitted substantially from the colonial system. For the British, a policy of concessions in Uganda followed as they attempted to appease the indigenous population and make the arguably inevitable path to independence as smooth as possible. As Britain failed to quell the racial tensions it had itself created, the anti-colonial movement which included an anti-Asian element, continued to increase with the creation of the first African political party, the Ugandan National Congress in 1952.

Independence for Uganda on October 9th, 1962 did not see much change beyond the surface level, with the influence of Britain and the West remaining prevalent. The Ugandan Asians now numbering around 77,500, equating to about 1% of the population, were divided themselves along lines of religion, caste and class. This is important in the fact that it prevented a united Ugandan Asian community as their heterogenous nature and lack of political influence meant there was no advantage to joining as a larger group based on their ethnicity. Independence also led to the growing issue of citizenship for the community. The majority of Ugandan Asians, around 50,000, opted to remain under the two forms of British Protection rather than apply for Ugandan citizenship following independence. Opting for British citizenship was not a form of loyalty or non-commitment to Uganda, but rather an economic lottery and a belief that their status as British citizen would provide more protection and opportunities. Yet, later it would bring legitimacy to Amin’s expulsion as purging Uganda of non-citizens.

It is important to note that, as a result of the uncertainties of their livelihood in Uganda and the effects of Africanization, Ugandan Asians who held British citizenship had begun as early as 1962 to apply for immigration to Britain. This was arguably the perfect solution for Obote’s government and yet, for Britain it was unwelcome as the issue of its “coloured” former colonial subjects being allowed to enter the British Isles was proving increasingly unpopular with the general population. Substantial changes to Britain’s immigration policy were triggered by the arrival of Kenyan Asians due to president Jomo Kenyatta’s further targeting of the community in 1967. Consequently, in 1968 as a result of the influx of Kenyan Asians combined with a fear of further arrivals of South Asians from Uganda and Tanzania the Labour government revised the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act. This reform further limited the ability of non-white British citizens to enter the United Kingdom by requiring citizens of the Commonwealth of Nations to have had at least one parent or grandparent born in Britain. While 7,000 Ugandan Asians would leave for Britain between 1962 and 1969, the 1968 reform promptly ended any further emigration to Britain and made it increasingly difficult for Ugandan Asians to leave the country. Those that had retained British citizenship were now facing increased charges of being unloyal to Uganda while simultaneously being refused entry to the country of their citizenship.

For the minority of Ugandan Asians that had applied for Ugandan citizenship and had no option but to remain in Uganda, there was no reward or exemption from the widespread economic reforms Obote began to introduce. The passing of a Trade Licensing act in 1969 began the process of Africanization of Ugandan Asian urban businesses, with those benefitting being largely African allies of the regime. It is no coincidence that Obote’s policies of Africanization and targeting of Ugandan Asians accelerated in 1969, the year which brought a major economic crisis for independent Uganda. The Ugandan Asian middleclass served as the perfect scapegoat for the government to trigger economic recovery, proclaiming that Africanization would ensure profits were solely invested within Uganda. Yet the small businesses that were taken out of Asian hands were often given to those that supported the regime rather than those with business acumen, consequently leading to little economic recovery. As a result of an inability to enact widespread Africanization solely by targeting small Asian businesses, Obote in a similar, yet less extensive fashion to that of Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, attempted to introduce forms of nationalisation in his so called ‘Move to the Left’ in 1970. This signalled for the first time that Obote was willing to address the Western penetration of the economy through the control of banks and large-scale companies. Obote’s hold on power had been largely reliant on the West, through economic investment and military support, and now that he was challenging their interests he became expendable. Furthermore, because of a dependency on the Ugandan Army for stability since the 1966 Mengo Crisis, Obote had allowed the military to grow as a faction that could be swayed by the West to instigate a coup with promises of power and international support. Worryingly for Obote, the Ugandan Army also had a rising charismatic leader in Idi Amin who had previously served in the British Colonial Army and was subsequently seen as a reliable figurehead for the West.

Amin was firmly a product of British colonial rule in Uganda. Born in the Uganda Protectorate, he experienced first-hand the effects of British colonialism. His mother, as a labourer working for the capitalist Ugandan Asian Mehta family on a plantation, reflected the racial hierarchy that Britain had created in colonial Uganda. Amin, through his close contact to Ugandan Asians, became aware of the privileged position they held over Africans, and grew to see them as the exploiters of Uganda. Later, after joining the Kings African Rifles in 1946, Amin was subject to British propaganda that, as mentioned prior, perpetuated a stereotype of the South Asian community as the worst offenders of the Indian Ocean Slave Trade and as dishonest and cunning businessmen.

In January 1971 Britain with the support of the United States and Israel decided to trigger a coup d’état that would see Amin replace Obote as leader of Uganda. Amin, backed by around 5,700 soldiers and the cooperation of roughly 5,500 policemen, seized power on January 25th 1971 and the day after proclaimed himself as Head of State, promising that civilian rule would be returned after free and fair elections, something that would never come.

Despite being a Western led coup, Idi Amin’s ascendancy to power was extremely popular with Ugandans, especially for those involved in private business that had been threatened as a result of Obote’s Move to the Left.  Within the first few months Amin began to cement his power base within the Uganda Army and Police force. He encouraged the unemployed to join the army with the promise of wealth. This was reflected in the granting of unlimited search and arrest powers for the army in March 1971 in order to curb armed robbery, while in reality it served as a means for extortion and repossession. Amin can be seen to have begun the formation of a fascist state early on, centralizing all forces of repression under that of the armed forces and police. Political opposition and activities were also quickly banned within the first few months of his leadership in response to strikes. In what would become a prevalent feature of his regime, Amin issued a threat advising Ugandans to stay away from politics as those involved will have ‘a bitter end’. Within his first year of leadership, it became evident that Amin saw the Ugandan Asian presence as a huge problem. Amin’s first policy targeting the Ugandan Asian community explicitly was the ordering of an Asian census in October 1971, with those that refused to comply automatically forfeiting their claim to live in Uganda. Amin’s desire to gain knowledge of the citizenship status of every Ugandan Asian highlighted that the issue of loyalty and commitment to Uganda was now of upmost importance. The Ugandan Asians were ordered to go to special camps in order to be counted, an episode that has few good connotations in history. Amin then announced an Asian conference in December 1971 in which he blamed the poor relations of Asians and Africans on the Asian’s ‘disloyalty, non-integration and commercial malpractice.

By 1972, Amin was committed to scapegoating the Ugandan Asians for current and past failures. Outside of his targeting of the Ugandan Asians, the brutality of Amin’s regime had also set in, with tens of thousands of African Ugandans having either been killed or “disappearing” by 1972. Despite Amin’s threats that if Asians held political meetings, it would be at their peril, the Ugandan Asian community united in order to form a response to Amin’s December memorandum, and aimed to resolve some of the tensions by presenting their side of the argument. Presented on the 4th January 1972 to Idi Amin, the memorandum had an appeasing tone, arguing that they understood Amin’s frustrations, but also wished to dispel some of the charges he had brought against the community. The memorandum highlighted the fact that many African Ugandans did not wish to integrate with Asians, and that only through a government led initiative focusing on education would social integration be possible. The Ugandan Asian community also agreed that acts of malpractice within trade and commerce should be ended and those that had taken part be prosecuted. On the other hand, they argued that it was not a community wide failure and that no other social group had been investigated for their criminal elements. On the pressing issues of citizenship, the memorandum declared that many Ugandan Asians had applied multiple times for Ugandan citizenship without it being processed, evidence pointing that this amounted to almost 30,000 applications. Unsurprisingly, Amin’s reaction to being contradicted and argued with was not one of tolerance. The conference that had attempted to ease tensions arguably had done the exact opposite.

The 4th of August 1972 would signal the beginning of the end for the Ugandan Asian community under Amin. Addressing a Military Regiment, Amin declared that Uganda had no place for the 80,000 Asians who were ‘sabotaging Uganda’s economy and encouraging corruption’. By the 9th of August, Amin declared that all non-citizen Asians must leave Uganda within three months and that those who dared remained would be ‘sitting on fire’.

Interestingly, these first two decelerations, on the 4th of August and the 9th of August, had only concerned the expulsion of Ugandan Asians who held British passports or were non-citizens, yet Amin’s number of 80,000 would imply that this involved the entire Ugandan Asian community which in reality only numbered around 75,000. British diplomats were concerned by the edict, but, due to the unclear claims Amin was making and the fact that they saw him as easily controllable, believed that the declaration was simply rhetoric and that they could easily come to some understanding.

When it became clear that the entire Asian community was to be forced out of Uganda, the international response was both one of objection but also one of fear for the mass movement of a refugee population. Amin began to nullify the citizenship of Ugandan Asians by requiring Asians to provide Ugandan passports, birth and marriage certificates of themselves as well as their parents.

In response to the expulsion call, Tanzania and Kenya immediately closed their borders to Uganda, indicating that they wished to be no part of dealing with the fallout.

The first two months of the expulsion, August and September, would see a slow departure of Ugandan Asians for several reasons. While around 50,000 of the community held British passports, due to the aforementioned immigration acts they were requested to report to the British High Commission in order to verify their papers and gain an entry permit. Britain, continuing to hope that making the expulsion as difficult as possible for Amin may lead him to back down, ordered the High Commission building in Kampala to only open between 10-12.30.

A further reason for the slow initial departures was that for many Ugandan Asians, despite the years of scapegoating and rising animosity in Uganda, the expulsion still felt unreal. Furthermore, the declaration by the government that emigres were only permitted to take their personal belongings and £50 cash led to a panic to sell one’s properties, stock and large possessions. Those that were able to sell their possessions and properties did so at extremely deflated prices. As Ugandan Asian businesses became abandoned, they were quickly seized by the Army and the Police under the orders of Amin with looters shot at without hesitation. It was becoming clear that only those close to the regime would benefit from this supposed economic war.

One can argue that the expulsion became a reality for most Ugandan Asians on the 9th of October 1972 which signalled the beginning of the United Nations airlift. This airlift has been organized in response to a telegram Amin had sent to the United Nations Secretary-General on September the 13th, declaring that Hitler had been correct in his dealing with the Jewish people and that his only failure was that he did not kill enough of them. The telegram generated international attention and drew great concern from the United Nations as well as Britain who finally understood that the situation was becomingly increasingly dangerous for the Ugandan Asian community. While an airlift was now organised there still remained chaos in attempting to leave Uganda. The journey to these chartered flights was itself distressing, piled into coaches, the Ugandan Asians were frequently stopped at military checkpoints on their way to the airlift, with widespread intimidation, theft and rape taking place. Yet by the 9th of November, the deadline of the expulsion, Amin had achieved his goal with only an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 Ugandan Asians remaining within national borders out of an estimated population of 74,000.

As the first wave of Ugandan Asians began to arrive in the United Kingdom following Amin’s expulsion call, the British government realised that it had to deal with the fact that many of the refugees, despite having British citizenship, had no connections or experience of life in the United Kingdom. This was reflected in the fact that out of the 193 Ugandan Asians on the first flight to arrive, 101 had nowhere to go.

As a result, the government organised the creation of the Uganda Resettlement Board in August 1972 to not only deal with the resettlement of those that had no place to go, but also to control the distribution of Ugandan Asians across the United Kingdom who might already have friends or family in the country. To do this, the URB converted 16 former military bases, scattered around the country, into resettlement camps that would temporarily accommodate the Ugandan Asians after their arrival, and until they had found housing and employment

The main task of the URB was twofold: 1) to meet and distribute the Ugandan Asians to resettlement camps upon their arrival in the United Kingdom and 2) to then subsequently organise their distribution into towns and cities around the country with the guarantee of employment and housing.

A large percentage of the Ugandan Asians were dealt with by the URB, with around 3,000 of the 4,000 arrivals by the 1st of October being placed in resettlement camps. While the URB’s aim was to accommodate the Ugandan Asians temporarily, before finding them housing and employment, many Ugandan Asians were expected to search for employment opportunities themselves.

While treatment at the camps left much to be desired, arguably the most controversial aspect of the URB’s program was its resettlement scheme and the creation of Green and Red Areas. By November, the URB was faced with the task of finding jobs and housing for the growing population of the camps. Influenced by government policy, public opinion, and the attitudes of many Board members, a decision was made that the Ugandan Asians should only be distributed to Green Areas while avoiding Red Areas at all costs. The designation of these areas was made upon the basis of four social and economic conditions: housing, schools, social service, and employment. If the area was facing severe problems in two or more of these areas, it was declared a Red Area. This subsequently meant that large cities such as London, Birmingham, and Leicester were all designated Red and undesirable for the resettlement of Ugandan Asians.

In hindsight, the presence of a large immigrant community in Red Areas would have made it easier for the Ugandan Asians to successfully find employment and housing as networks of South Asians could provide support. Nevertheless, for the URB the settlement of Ugandan Asians in Red Areas would only magnify the issues and strains on local government and thus was to be avoided at all costs. Yet the attempt to settle Ugandan Asians in Green Areas also presented difficulties. To begin with, Green Areas were largely in rural areas that had no immigrant communities to help provide support regarding integration. Furthermore, Green Areas often reported to the URB that they had a lack of housing, or that it would be unfair to give it to the Ugandan Asians over British citizens who were already on a waiting list. The reluctance of local authorities to provide housing or help in finding employment represents one of the main issues the URB faced. Its powers were limited to only requesting help from local authorities rather than the ability to seize housing, even on a temporary basis. In addition, when the URB was successful in finding employment it often advised the head of the household to move into temporary accommodation and leave their family in the camp until appropriate housing was found, which was routinely refused.

Consequently, with an inability to find housing and employment for all the residents in the camps the population remained high, with around 7,000 Uganda Asians still waiting to be resettled after 4 to 6 months of arriving in the United Kingdom As a result, the URB began to relax its rules and advised Ugandan Asians to find housing and employment wherever they could. This resulted in a majority of the Ugandan Asians eventually heading to cities and towns that had large South Asian immigrant populations, primarily London and Leicester. By the time of its disbanding in January 1974, only around a 1/3 of the 26,608 Ugandan Asians dealt with by the URB had been provided housing and employment by the board itself, and of those only 38% were resettled in Green Areas.